Private Stites Should Have Been Saved
Why are so many army soldiers committing suicide? Take a look at its basic training and the tragic death of Private Nolan Stites.
"Need some help," Chaplain Groseclose wrote in June 2001, a full year after Gary and Nolan's death. (The e-mail exchange was obtained from the Pentagon source.) "Came across something that has caused me some concern. A soldier under investigation for a significant crime was placed on Line of Sight (LOS) sometimes called a unit suicide watch at his local unit. This was done after mental health determined that he was NOT at risk. Today the soldier has been on LOS for 3 weeks.... My concern is in researching LOS I'm being told there is no regulation on its use by unit commanders. My observations are: In effect, putting a soldier on LOS is putting him on 'restrictions.' In this case the soldier was living off post and now is restricted to his unit under total supervision. Great idea if he is at-risk for harm to self or others BUT what about the [commander] who is really agitated at a soldier and is looking for a way to make life miserable for a problem soldier. In this case mental health says LOS is not needed and yet for three weeks this soldier has been on LOS. Enough said - You catch my concern."
Groseclose's peer, Lt. Col. Gregory Black, responded, "I too have had this experience...This is a significant issue..." Black forwarded the e-mail to Col. Orman. The Army's consultant to the surgeon general replied, "This is a 'huge issue' in [training installations] ... We need a common set of regulatory guidance throughout [training installations] and the Army as a whole to provide both commanders and the [mental health] professional community." If Unit Watch is being used to punish a "healthy" soldier, one can only imagine the effect it would have on a mentally distraught soldier like Gary or Nolan.
According to the Pentagon source, in the last five years, one other BCT trainee, in addition to Gary and Nolan, committed suicide while on Unit Watch. Labeling these three BCT-Unit Watch suicides a statistical anomaly, as some in the Army see them, might be ignoring the chilling - even fatal - effect Unit Watch could be having on the psyche of all Army troops.
"In the military," Swanner says, "we have this mentality of 'suck it up, drive on, we have a mission to accomplish.' We're trying to emphasize that it's OK to get help. Just like if you would sprain your ankle on a road march and you would go see a doctor, it's OK if you're having feelings of depression to see a mental health professional. We're trying to tell our soldiers that seeking help is not a sign of weakness; on the contrary, it is a sign of maturity and individual courage."
Basic Combat Training is where all Army training begins. It is where drill instructors teach civilians, mostly kids, what is and is not acceptable warrior behavior; it is where soldiers learn when they should ask for help and what sort of response to expect. If BCT recruits witness or hear about soldiers demonstrating the sort of courage Swanner describes, only to be subjected to Unit Watch, why would any soldier come forward, either in training or in battle, like say, in Iraq? According to a late-2003 Army survey of 756 soldiers stationed in Iraq, the No. 1 reason troops do not seek counseling is because of the "perceived stigma" that would result. Forty-six percent of the troops questioned feared their leaders would blame them for the problem; 49 percent worried the unit would have less confidence in them; 58 percent believed unit leadership would treat them differently; and 59 percent of the soldiers were worried that if they sought out psychological counseling they would be seen as weak.
When asked about the effect Unit Watch may be having on Army suicides, Swanner talks about the difficulty of standardizing and monitoring the program because of the "hundreds of units within the Army." He talks about his and his superiors' goal of zero suicides. Diplomacy, patriotism, and heartfelt concern are all thick in his voice. Swanner rarely speaks to the press, especially since the War on Terror began and reports of suicides in Iraq began surfacing in the news. He agreed to talk now because, as he says, "Nolan's death should have been prevented and could have been prevented." Swanner keeps a picture of Pvt. Nolan Stites taped to his computer monitor. "Ideally," he says, "we could eliminate Unit Watch."
Richard Stites is determined to make that happen - and to have those he believes are responsible for Nolan's death held accountable. Army investigators cleared Nolan's chain of command of any wrongdoing and recommended that no administrative discipline be taken. Richard believes a jury of civilian peers would see things differently. He would like Nolan's case - as he sees it, a case of gross negligence and medical malpractice - heard in a courtroom. But a decades-old federal law stands in his way. The statute, commonly referred to as the Feres Doctrine, indemnifies the government from responsibility from harm or death to its agents that occurs "incident to the service."
Richard has reached out to Sen. Wayne Allard and Congressman Joel Hefley for assistance, petitioning them to work to have the law amended. "They talk about how they support our troops," he says. "Well, here's a chance for them to do it." Thus far, Richard says, the politicians have brushed aside his requests. And so he has become active in a veterans' rights organization, VERPA - Veterans Equal Rights Protection Advocacy, Inc. - that is lobbying Congress to change the law.
Meanwhile, Richard has been working diplomatically within the Army to persuade the brass to abolish Unit Watch and to increase suicide awareness. Thanks to Swanner, Richard has been visiting Amy posts and conventions around the country, telling Nolan's story. His audience is usually comprised of chaplains, Army mental-health workers, and soldiers of varying ranks. Attendance is mostly voluntary. Richard is grateful for the opportunity and pleased to see so many people in the crowd, but he is also consistently disappointed when he looks into the audience and doesn't see a single drill instructor.
Richard begins his presentation with a slide show. He takes the photos of Nolan that are now still lying before him on the family's dining room table and projects them onto a large screen in front of the audience. The father who restores images for a living wants everyone to see what cannot be recovered. "I want them to see what I lost," Richard says. "I can't even go into a grocery store without thinking of Nolan. I see fathers and sons walking the aisles. I see cereal I used to buy for Nolan. And I have to leave the store."
After most of his presentations, an officer in the audience has presented Richard with a "Unit Coin," which is awarded by Army brass to both soldiers and civilians alike, in appreciation for contributions to the unit. "The people who give them to me have no idea how much they mean to me. I keep them all in a wooden box. I feel like with each one of them I am giving my son the honor and recognition he deserves. I call it Nolan's coin collection." m
Maximillian Potter is the executive editor of 5280.